Timothy Ray Brown, dubbed the “Berlin Patient”, calls himself an HIV “survivor”.
Speaking at University of Cape Town's Faculty of Health Sciences earlier this week, Brown said he was cured of HIV after receiving a stem-cell transplant for leukaemia cancer nine years ago.
Brown, who was on ARVs before receiving treatment for leukaemia, said the virus was not detectable in his body after he received two bone marrow transplants.
“When I had leukaemia, I was told that I had only two years left to live. That was seven years ago. Honestly, I just thought it was all science fiction at first.
“After my first transplant I was able to return to work and I could go to gym as well. When I had HIV, I could not gain muscle weight but, following the transplant, I was now gaining muscle weight,” he said.
Brown said he quit ARV treatment after his transplant and has not used ARVs since then.
“My viral loads went down to undetectable and no HIV was found in my blood. I also had a colonoscopy and lymph node biopsy and no virus was detected.
“At the end of 2007 I had a case of pneumonia and the cancer returned during February 2008. That’s when a second transplant was done.” Brown confirmed he had asked for the same donor who donated the first time to donate for his second transplant. “I was lucky when the donor said yes.”
Following the second transplant, Brown said it “caused severe delirium”.
“I can confidently say I have been leukaemia-free for nine years. I am an HIV and cancer survivor,” he said.
It is thought Brown was cured of HIV as the donor had a rare mutation in a gene that conferred resistance to the virus. However, Brown also suffered graft-versus-host disease after the second transplant that may also have helped.
He said: “I do have a sense of survival guilt, but I believe in a higher power at work who chose me for this journey.”
Head of the division of medical virology at UCT, Carolyn Williamson, said Brown’s case “was a medical miracle”.
“And though we cannot repeat this miracle yet, there is lots of research trying to do this. The problem is that the virus could be sitting latent (silent) somewhere in the body, and if it is not replicating it cannot be detected by the immune system or eliminated by ARVs,” she explained.